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"What Rights to Land Have the Alaska Natives?:
The Primary Question" - May, 1966

by William L. Hensley
with May 2001 Introduction

I wrote the paper "What Rights to Land Have the Alaska Native:  the Primary Issue" for a class in Constitutional Law that was taught by Judge Jay Rabinowitz at the University of Alaska.  This was a graduate level course that just happened to be taught the spring semester in 1966.  I had just graduated from George Washington University (GWU) and had no idea what to do with my life.  I had started college in Fairbanks after high school, moved on to GWU, got a B.A. in Political Science and had no clear idea what career would be appropriate.

Growing up in Kotzebue, like many Inupiat children, I had been taught nothing about our history, language or culture through grade school and certainly nothing in the boarding school I attended in Tennessee. The system conspired to make sure we didn't retain anything from our heritage and pushed the reading, writing and history of the dominant culture.

It was this short paper that helped me to understand, that by 1966, the Alaska Native people were in grave danger of losing all of their traditional lands.  The little research that I did, with the assistance and encouragement from Judge Rabinowitz, provided me the insight I needed to take action to save what we could.  It was as if scales were lifted from my eyes at the conclusion of that spring semester.  If the state land selections continued, it was clear that the hope of retrieving Native land, or getting compensation, would perhaps never come.  I knew we had to act and to act quickly.

This paper helped me to speak to others and to make a visit to Kotzebue to begin the land claim in what is now the NANA region.  It also propelled me to join others in the formation of what became the Alaska Federation of Natives, in October of 1966.  If I'm not mistaken, I believe Charlie Edwardsen made copies of my paper to distribute to the first convention of AFN.  In spite of it being a short paper, it outlined a small bit of American Indian history and their treatment by the United States; some of the resulting laws based on the treaties; some of the key points in Alaska Native history such as the Treaty of Cession, the Organic Act of 1884, the Indian Citizenship Act, the Indian Reorganization Act, the Indian Claims Commission Act and the Statehood Act.  These were virtually unkown by Alaska Natives in 1966 except for the Tlingits who had been in court since the 1930's seeking compensation for the Tongass National Forest.

I strongly urge Alaskans to require the teaching of Alaska history in our public schools.  This will help us to understand the nature of the issues that we face today and in the future.  

Willie Hensley , May 2001

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